Monthly Archives: April 2009

Ecce Romani!

Ecce Romani was the name of my first Latin textbook.   When they weren’t telling scintillating stories of Cornelia and Flavia reading under the tree at the country house and how happy Marcus and Sextus were playing ball (ie the Dick and Jane equivalents of the Latin textbook world), they told you things about ancient Rome too.   On the whole these sections were much more interesting, so needless to say I was happily looking forward to my day exploring the sights of ancient Rome.


The Colosseum definitely steals the show so far as appearances go, but my first stop was the Roman Forum.  More history, and the line is a lot shorter for a ticket here!  I spent an inordinate amount of time wandering around the various buildings, sneaking close to tour groups to see if there was anything interesting said that I didn’t already know.  For any of those interested, it is kind of depressing how little one really needs to know in order to be a tour guide in Rome.


Perhaps it doesn’t look like much, but this is one of my favorite spots in the Forum.   It  is the remains of the Temple of Caesar,  on the very spot where he was cremated and where Marc Anthony said his eulogy, and people still leave fresh flowers here for Caesar (this batch was left over from March 15, of course).   Mind the tradition of leaving flowers here can’t be more than 100 years old or so as this temple was buried for most of the past 2,000 years, but that’s not stopping them.

image5331Speaking of being buried, see that door in between the columns?   That’s where the ground level used to be up until a century and a half ago or so when they started digging- the Forum was in a valley that filled up with dirt and water over time when the Roman pumps went into decay.  For years and years no one thought there was anything to the field above the Forum except a few columns the shepard would eat lunch on while tending the flocks that grazed there.

That is one thing about Rome that few people think about by the way- the fact that frankly it was a tiny nondescript town for most of its recent history.   Sure it was big in the heyday of the Roman empire but most people left when the aqueducts were no longer maintained and the city had a population of no more than 20,000 for centuries, finally passing the one million mark again in the late eighteenth century.   In fact, I’ve been reading through Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad lately published in 1869 about his travels, and when he stops bitching about the church’s wealth he describes Rome as just a town there in tribute to the decay of the ancient Empire.

The reason I love this is because it is so delicious to imagine living in Rome in, say, A.D. 700 when the whole civilization is gone and there is nothing left but a few people living amongst the incredible ruins of a lost civilization.   I’m sure it would have been depressing overall, but somehow the thought hasn’t left me.


Posing in the Curia, aka ancient Senate, with a statue of Titus.   The Curia is pretty well preserved actually because it was converted into a church once the pagans cleared out.


A view towards the Forum from the top of the Palatine Hill, which fascinated me because it was something I remember doing twenty years ago.   This in particular is a close-up of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the ring of columns previously enclosing the space where the sacred flame was that symbolized the might of Rome.

By the way, to continue my previous thought, the last Vestal Virgin was a woman named Coelia Concordia, as the Emperor ordered the closing of the temple in the late fourth century once pretty much everyone was Christian.   Wouldn’t that be an interesting life story, to be a Vestal Virgin while Rome is collapsing and everyone else has been adopting this new religion instead?image5521

I loved the Palatine Hill too, by the way, not just for the view.  It used to be the site of several affluent villas and gardens and the gardens are still maintained, and this year it was an intoxicating combination of scents from the lilies, flowering trees, and everything else you can imagine this time of year (including more citrus!).

While the Roman Forum is up to its ears in history, though, I confess it was a little difficult to appreciate because so little of it is left- you really need to tax your imagination to think of what it was really like, and how Caesar and Brutus and all the Emperors of Rome had walked where you are.  When it came to the next place, though, luckily a lack of structure certainly wasn’t a problem-


Mark Twain describes the Colosseum of the 18th century of being covered in grass and lizards sunning themselves.   Definitely not the case now with all the tourists, but I didn’t care.   Tourists are sometimes there for good reason, and the reason here is the Colosseum is just too cool.image561

Inside the Colosseum- to the left if you look close you can see a giant cross erected where the Emperor used to sit.  They didn’t actually kill Christians here by the way, that myth started up a few centuries later in the record as frankly the Christians weren’t fighters and hence particularly interesting to Romans wanting to see a good match.  Doesn’t stop the Pope from coming here every Good Friday to say Mass, however.

My other interesting note when it came to the inside of the Colosseum is I was always interested in seeing how big the thing was due to the rumor that they used to flood it and hold mock naval battles.  After inspection, however, I have personally concluded they didn’t.  It’s just not big enough for maneuvering ships, though for watching people and animals kill each other it’s just the right size.

The more I thought about it, actually, the more I couldn’t get over how similar the Colosseum was to any sports stadium I’ve been to elsewhere, except you’re not supposed to explicitly cheer for blood at our games with the exception of maybe ice hockey.  I concluded the reason we all like the Romans so much is because they reveal more about ourselves than we’d ever dare admit up front.


Before anyone worries, yes, all is well despite the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that hit Italy last night.  Although it was pretty close to my current location of Florence (ie in the hundred miles away range) we didn’t feel a thing over here, and in fact first learned about it by logging onto CNN.  I suppose this is another one I can add to my “never been in an earthquake but got close” file.

When in Rome…

You have no idea how many times I was about to say this to a fellow traveler in Rome, but stopped myself because I knew it would be a joke I didn’t intend to make.  I suspect I just say this a lot when someone complains that they don’t like to drink wine but everyone here  does, or everyone eats out too late, or whatever the traveler’s complaint is against the local population.

Anyway, Rome.   My very first afternoon here I head out for my walk, and within five minutes I run into this-image523

Ooooh, a protest!   Let’s go wander around in it! (Really, when they’re taking up the main thoroughfare there isn’t much choice anyway.)image525

Lots of communist flags and the like- I find it interesting that in Italy aligning with the communist party is still a relatively mainstream political view.  As people my age know English here pretty well I ask what’s going on, and a girl tells me they are upset with the way the government is handling the economy.  I nod, remembering that the G20 summit was within a few days.


And then I run into the line of riot police, with several paddy wagons just waiting for the arrested masses, and decided to leave as the Italian prison system is one bit of culture I can do without exploring.  Saw a few filled ones blaring their way through the streets later though.

Beyond communist protests there were a lot of tourist sites seen as well, but the ancient Roman stuff and the Vatican deserve their own posts.  So here are a few other Roman things I saw, in pouring rain no less as the weather wasn’t cooperating and I needed my umbrella for the first time since Japan-


Spanish Steps, which would have been more interesting in sunshine with a bunch of Romans on them eating gelato.  As is, during the rain the steps are really just a bunch of steps.


Another vitally important stop was, of course, the Trevi Fountain to throw in coins, rain or no rain!  The way this works is you’re supposed to throw the coins with your right hand over your left shoulder- one means you will come back to Rome, two means you will fall in love with a beautiful Roman guy/girl, and three means you will marry said beautiful Roman in Rome itself.

I threw three, on the grounds that it could always be the guy who has his summer villa in Capri.  As long as I am wishing why not make it a good one?

And because everyone feels the urge to warn me about them, a word on Italian men- in short, their reputation is a bit overblown as you get more distracting advances in a physics department.  To be fair I don’t know what the old Italian men are saying to me on the street, but the younger ones will just say they like your appearance and ask if you want a drink and move their merry way if you turn them down.  It’s quite respectfully done so it really doesn’t feel like harassment, they just have a more forward way of doing things if that makes sense. (I once saw an Italian guy confused that he upset an American girl by saying she was pretty, with a sincere “but you are!”)

And that is the brief overview of Rome until I delve into the details, as Italy has been very bad at giving me down-time to update this blog.  What a terrible country with all these opportunities for fun to be had…

The Rated-X Pompeii Post

As anyone who has seen the HBO series Rome knows, the Romans were definitely not prudes.  This was to the point where most of the artwork in this post was off-limits to the public until just a few years ago, so if you are conservative it’s probably best to stop reading this post now.
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In Napoli, Where Love is King…


I admit I was a little nervous going into Naples.  This is because everyone likes to scare you off the place by telling you stories of how the guys harass women even more there, how you need to watch your bag because guys on Vespas will steal them, and a myraid of other terrors that leave you thinking this city is one of the worst out there.  But what do you find upon arriving?  A nicely bustling metropolis where you get around without trouble and all the women have purses like it’s no big deal (albeit the kind you strap around your shoulder).  The whole thing reminded me of New York City honestly, and being a home-grown American that’s probably why I didn’t blink and the Europeans think Naples is some unsafe, scary place.  Conclude what you will.


A typical narrow Neapolitan street, incidentally the one my hostel was on. (By the way, I love that someone from Naples is called Neapolitan- it makes them all sound like delicious confectionery that comes in three flavors.)  I had two goals in Naples, to find some great authentic pizza and see the Archaeological Museum, and since the first was managed by just walking into the street I will focus on the second-


The great ballroom in the Archaeological Museum, built in the past by one of Naples’ kings.  I liked it because it was originally supposed to be an astronomical observatory (how I haven’t figured out) so there’s still a zodiac on the floor, and the roof has the fresco of angels holding a message telling you to think of all the poor paintings not on display.  Think indeed, because the collection they have is amazing-


The Museum is essentially where they placed all the beautiful finds from all over Italy dating to the Roman times, most famously stuff unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Imagine, just hall after never-ending hall of the stuff!  Granted, the sculpture hall inevitably leads to some of this-


Yes, that’s right, chilling with Marc Anthony.   It’s disturbing how many pictures I have like this.  Moving on…


They have a wonderful display set up for all the gear used in gladiatorial combat.   Neat stuff.


This picture I include here because it was immediately recognizable to me.   After all, it was on the cover of my Latin book in high school!  I also realized now how whenever I studied classics the books would always have the tagline after the famous picture “On Display at the Archaeological Museum in Naples” and, you know, I was finally seeing all that stuff.  Too cool.

image5011My favorites, though, were undoubtedly the mosaics.  Pompeii and Herculaneum were absolutely filled with mosaic after beautiful mosaic, some on the walls, most on the floor, like the giant above.  Because you can’t see the details, here is a close-up of another one-


Doesn’t it look like the Romans just figured out pointilism a few thousand years before the Impressionists?  Because that’s what never left my mind.

But the Museum wasn’t done so easy.  No, it was time to enter the entertaining place known as the Secret Room…